In the 1700s the Ponca Indians separated from the Omaha tribe and established villages along the Niobrara River and Ponca Creek in present Nebraska and South Dakota. There they subsisted on horticulture and bison hunts. Until the arrival of the Teton Sioux circa 1750, the Poncas' territory stretched from the Missouri River to the Black Hills. Smallpox and other diseases in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reduced their numbers. Sioux warfare forced their withdrawal to an area near the mouth of the Niobrara River.
The Ponca never warred with the United States, with whom they signed their first peace treaty in 1817. A trade agreement followed in 1825. In 1858 and 1865 the Ponca also signed land cession treaties in return for military protection and economic assistance. During the 1860s and 1870s, droughts, failed bison hunts, and an incessant Sioux threat brought the Ponca to the brink of starvation. Instead of honoring its treaty obligations, the United States ceded Ponca land to the Sioux in 1868. Rather than renegotiate the Sioux treaty, the federal government removed the Ponca to Indian Territory in 1877.
The Ponca removal was grossly mishandled. The United States not only failed to obtain the consent of the Ponca chiefs but also neglected to provide a reservation with adequate facilities. According to some estimates, nearly 158, almost a third of the tribe, perished during the first years in Oklahoma. After the death of his son in 1878, Ponca subchief Standing Bear returned to Nebraska with a group of followers. His arrest and trial led to a landmark decision in federal Indian jurisprudence. The court ruled in Standing Bear v. Crook (1879) that Indians were recognized as persons under the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore could sue for their rights. The decision split the tribe into northern and southern bands, as Standing Bear's followers were allowed to remain in Nebraska.
The southern Ponca under principal chief White Eagle settled on a 101,000-acre reservation near the confluence of the Salt Fork and Arkansas rivers in the Cherokee Outlet (present Kay and Noble counties in Oklahoma). They established winter camps along the Arkansas River, where they continued to practice their tribal customs. They leased most of their land to Euroamerican farmers and ranchers, including the Miller brothers of the 101 Ranch.
Ponca culture came under pressure in the 1880s and 1890s. Agents and missionaries sought to abolish traditional dances, marriage practices, and religious customs. Despite tribal opposition, the government also imposed its allotment policy on them in 1892, resulting in the eventual alienation of much of their land. The Ponca again came under pressure after the discovery of oil on and near their reservation by oilman Ernest Whitworth Marland in 1911. The development of the Ponca and Tonkawa oil fields caused environmental problems, forcing the Ponca to abandon their winter camps along the Arkansas River and move onto individual allotments.
Despite these pressures, the Ponca continued to shape their culture. Many joined the Miller Brothers' 101 Ranch Wild West Show, which allowed them to reenact aspects of their traditional lifestyle. The introduction of the peyote religion permitted them to establish their own version of Christianity. Two educated young Poncas, Frank Eagle and Louis McDonald, were cofounders of the Native American Church in 1918.
In 1919 Ponca World War I veterans formed an American Legion chapter called Buffalo Post 38. This organization revived such traditional war-related practices as the Ponca war dance (heluska). Dancing remained the central expression of traditional Ponca culture. Throughout Oklahoma the Ponca were known for their knowledge of songs and dances. They made important contributions to the development of powwow culture on the southern Plains. In 1926 Gus McDonald was crowned the first world champion fancy dancer, earning the Ponca the honor of organizing the world championships each year. The annual Ponca powwow, one of the oldest powwows in Oklahoma, is held every August.
In 1950 the Ponca organized a tribal government in accordance with the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act of 1936. The tribal headquarters are located at White Eagle, five miles south of Ponca City. In 1961 Clyde Warrior, a Ponca activist, cofounded the National Indian Youth Council. Warrior's call for tribal self-determination paved the way for a new generation of Indian activists in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Turmoil characterized Ponca tribal politics during the 1970s and 1980s. Accusations of fraud and mismanagement led to a high turnover ratio of officials in the tribal business committee, the tribe's governing body. When the federal government reduced tribal funding in the 1980s, the committee began a bingo operation to increase revenues. Presently, Indian gaming is one of the most contentious issues between the State of Oklahoma and the Ponca community.
Relations between the Ponca of Oklahoma and the Ponca of Nebraska improved after the U.S. government restored recognition to the latter in 1990. Since then, both have cooperated on numerous issues, including the repatriation of human remains and artifacts under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). One of the greatest challenges facing Oklahoma's Ponca community is the retention of their language and cultural traditions. In 2003 the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma had 2,549 enrolled members.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Donald N. Brown and Lee Irwin, "Ponca," in Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 13, Plains, ed. Raymond J. DeMallie (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 2001). Thomas Brown, "In Pursuit of Justice: The Ponca Indians in Indian Territory, 1877-1905," in Oklahoma's Forgotten Indians, ed. Robert E. Smith (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1981). Joseph Cash and Gerald W. Wolff, The Ponca People (Phoenix: Indian Tribal Series, 1975). James H. Howard, The Ponca Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995). Joseph Jablow, Ponca Indians: Ethnology of the Ponca (New York: Garland, 1974). Valerie Sherer Mathes and Richard Lowitt, The Standing Bear Controversy: Prelude to Indian Reform (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003). David J. Wishart, An Unspeakable Sadness: The Dispossession of the Nebraska Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994).
Mark van de Logt
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